“Part of what it is to be courageous is to see reality accurately and to respond well in the face of it." ~ Jonathan Lear

3 May 2018

The end of Britain/the end of democracy?

In 1999, the conservative commentator Peter Hitchens published a book called 'The Abolition of Britain' that described the constitutional changes taking place under Tony Blair's first government as a 'slow motion coup d'état'. 

I haven't read the book myself, but the theme and title come to mind now that it seems clear that Brexit will only happen in name only, if at all. The Establishment forces have been organising for two years now, and they have just about made it. When the Irish government and the EU in concert work to exercise a veto over British constitutional arrangements and the British Establishment shrugs its shoulders or eggs them on as they have been, the game would seem to be up. 

The idea that a 'hard border' on the island of Ireland as a result of Brexit will somehow 'cause' violence to break out is a political device invented by politicians and spin doctors. It is an assertion which serves a crucial political purpose (as well as stamping all over any serious notions of causality and agency). 

Sinn Fein is certainly using the issue to stir up trouble, with Leo Varadkar's government a happy accomplice, but from what I have seen and heard there is no desire from the ex-IRA to go back to shooting and bombing people. Rather, the EU together with the Irish government and anti-Brexit campaigners have been using the IRA as a silent threat to influence public - and political - opinion in Britain. You might say they have been employing the IRA as their armed wing - in the name of peace.

(We might even call this the first instance of an EU Army being used, even if it is an old terrorist army that doesn't officially exist anymore.)

I don't see much point in getting too angry about this. This is political power in operation. Everything about the anti-Brexit movement, from their concerted and successful efforts to dominate the airwaves to their work in Parliament and Whitehall - has screamed political power. The winners get to describe what is happening and what happened and what will happen, and that is the case now. It only goes to show how much they want to keep Britain in the EU and unable to control its own destiny as a sovereign democracy.

The question is: what next? Things will never be the same again, that is for sure. I certainly have no crystal ball, but a few thoughts have been leaping to mind (with the emphasis on 'leaping'), including the following:

  1. This is the end of British democracy; 
  2. This is the end of the United Kingdom as a notionally independent state; and
  3. This will give a big push to renewed independence efforts, c.f. what has happened with the SNP in Scotland.

I wouldn't say any of those things with any certainty, but I think they are worth reflecting on.

On the first question, there is no such thing as a perfect democracy, and the United Kingdom has never been that. What the anti-Brexit efforts have shown is that our elites are alive and well and aren't willing to let democracy prevail if it doesn't match their own wishes and interests. On one level you could say, 'fair enough' to them - though it'd be nice if they didn't disguise their own will and preference behind ideas of absolute, rational good for everyone. 

When I was thinking about this the other day, it brought to mind an essay by a Bulgarian political scientist called Ivan Krastev. In this essay, written well before Brexit, Krastev wrote "Elites approach elections as opportunities for manipulating the people rather than listening to them (Big Data makes voting marginal as a source of feedback)."

But with the EU referendum vote, they struggled to do that. The question asked, Leave or Remain, went beyond our normal 'managed democracy' into the realm of existentials, asking us a fundamental question about who we are and where we see our destiny. The likes of David Cameron, George Osborne, Tony Blair and Nick Clegg did their best to manage us, but we got away from them, just.

Not for long though. It looks as though will have to get back in our box again. But how long until we pop out again? What organisations will appear looking to renew this democratic revolution of sorts?

We will have to wait and see (and get busy).

30 March 2018

A few thoughts on human 'rights'

When we hear activists talk about how we or they or some particular people have 'a right' to something, it can sound a little perplexing.

On one hand, it sounds nice that people have a right to the good things of life, like security, freedom, material reward and the rest. But on the other the word, 'right', serves rather like a hammer, nailing down something, making it secure, which means taking away elements of doubt, of contest - of politics in other words.

After all, a right is an entitlement. It moves the situation from one where the good things of life are up for grabs based on such things as hard work, ethical behaviour, greed, ambition and political power - and secures those goods from such contingencies. Political power is entrenched in a right. Any hard work can be considered done, ethical behaviour is put to one side and the human, all too human qualities of greed and ambition no longer need to be considered.

In other words a human right accords a legal basis to the allocation of rewards. A right might be encoded in statute law, but it remains a form of legality even without that. Failure to accord someone their right means breaking a law. The idea serves in a similar way to that of 'social justice', in bringing an account of justice to cover political life. Failure to do what social justice activists demand means breaking a law, which is to say committing a crime, a political crime - and this deserves punishment in the court of political life.

One of the most interesting aspects to this - and something that I have seen David Goodhart refer to a few times in talking about 'judicial activism' - is the relationship of rights to democracy. A right secures the allocation of resources (including existential resources like protection from criticism), and puts it beyond contest, which means putting it beyond democratic contest.

With a right, the matter has already been decided and no amount of democratic decision-making can change the decision.

If you start to look carefully, you might see that this way of approaching politics is all around us. It is a powerful way of removing political opposition. It is therefore a clear and present danger to democratic political life.

This is not to say that the things that come to us through our 'rights' are bad things. On the contrary. such things as 'rights at work' and 'the right to vote' are obviously good things. Our problem is how the language of rights is reaching out and extending its dominion, so closing off more and more political space.

27 March 2018

Corbyn and anti-Semitism: the whole of Labour is to blame, including 'moderates'

I must say I have found it a little strange seeing so many 'moderate' Labour MPs and activists getting angry about anti-Semitism in the party under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership.

Where was this anger and upset during two leadership elections which re-elected Corbyn in 2015 and 2016?

This sort of stuff is not new. It was well known and covered widely on blogs such as Harry's Place and Rob Marchant's Centre-Left blog in 2015. I also wrote about it on this blog. The right-wing press covered it extensively. Even the Guardian published a piece by James Bloodworth setting out the charge sheet against Corbyn and his many known associations with anti-Semites.

But in both elections, as I recall, none of the leadership candidates dared to raise it as a reason not to elect Corbyn as leader. Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham in 2015 and Owen Smith in 2016 instead fought dull, dry campaigns trying to tell the membership what they wanted to hear while talking intermittently about their high principles and 'values', of which anti-racism is always right up there.

When it came down to it, none of them had the spine to make a stand when it really mattered. And the rest of the Labour Party, except for a few honourable exceptions, just let it pass, allowing Corbyn supporters to dismiss it all as a right-wing conspiracy and letting him get elected, twice, without serious contest.

They are all to blame for this. Virtually the whole party is to blame. I see Liz Kendall was at the protest yesterday, as was Chuka Umunna, another leadership candidate in 2015, for a brief time before he bowed out. Stella Creasy was also there. She was a candidate for deputy leader in 2015. Did she speak up then? I certainly don't remember it.

Part of the problem for the liberal-left on anti-Semitism is that its favoured identity groups in what I am calling 'the system of diversity' do not include Jews. Favoured groups include women, gay people, non-white people and, associated with the latter group, Muslims. Jews do not qualify. Claims of structural disadvantage do not stick so easily to them (though some Jewish groups have been making strenuous efforts for Jews to be accepted on the same basis as a favoured group).

Instead, Jews generally appear in the white-skinned group, so as part of an unfavoured identity group. Partly as a result, anti-Semitism doesn't fit comfortably into the forms of discrimination and prejudice that the left fights against on a daily basis. This has opened up a space for anti-Semitism to gain a foothold among some groups, notably on the farther reaches of the left that have affiliated most readily with anti-Israeli and Islamist movements. This is something I look at in my upcoming book, 'The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity' - now available for pre-order via Amazon (sorry, no alternative retailers).

22 March 2018

The Tribe: some more details, including blurb and cover design

Imprint Academic has made available some details of my book, The Tribe: the liberal-left and the system of diversity, on its website here.

[Update: it is now available for pre-order via Amazon here and on the Imprint website here]

The Tribe: book cover

The blurb reads:

From Islamist terror to feminist equal pay campaigns and the apparent Brexit hate crime epidemic, identity politics seems to be everywhere nowadays. This is not entirely an accident. The progressive liberal-left, which dominates our public life, has taken on the politics of race, gender, religion and sexuality as a key part of its own group identity – and has used its dominance to embed them into our state and society.
In The Tribe, Ben Cobley guides us around the 'system of diversity' which has resulted, exploring the consequences of offering favour and protection to some people but not others based on things like skin colour and gender. He looks at how this system has almost totally captured the Labour Party and continues to capture other major institutions. He also looks at how it is capturing our language, appropriating key terms like ‘equality’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘inclusion’, while denying a voice to its outsiders.
The system of diversity makes a challenge to us all: submit, or risk exclusion from society itself.

The website page states that publication date will be 1st July this year, but my understanding has been that it will not be available until later than that. I will update will any further details.

Update: the publication date should be 1st July as listed. 

I wrote a few more words about the argument here.

18 March 2018

Why the accusation ‘irrational’ is generally bogus

There is often a sort of dishonesty to the accusation that someone or something is ‘irrational’. It presupposes that the person making the accusation knows how the other person or group of people should act in order to be rational. It means taking the place of others and claiming authority over what they should be doing, on grounds of knowledge.

I’ve put ‘knows’ and ‘act’ in italics above because the idea of rationality combines these two generally different notions. Knowing something is a passive condition. It generally means knowing facts, so something that has already happened. Action is a different condition. By definition it is active, affecting the world and projecting into the future.

The idea of rationality connects the two, projecting knowledge into the future, going beyond the sphere of facts and connecting to ideas of causation: that when I do this something else follows. In football if I kick the ball in the direction of the goal I am more likely to score a goal than if I aim at the corner flag. This is rational, logical thinking. You may base it on evidence of an experiment in which players variously aimed at the goal and at the corner flag, so it has some basis in knowledge and fact, but it is still projecting into the future. When the time comes around when I kick the ball, there may be other factors intervening that your calculation didn’t take into consideration – like my foot turning inwards or a very strong wind blowing.

In this way, your rational instruction to aim at the goal isn’t completely secure. But it is still reasonable – and rational – for me to aim at the goal if I want to score a goal. You would be well justified in calling me ‘irrational’ for aiming at the corner flag.

The idea of rationality makes good sense in this situation precisely because it is a limited situation, because there is a specific goal in mind – to score a goal – and actors involved in action trying to achieve that goal. It is an isolated, strictly bounded situation with relatively few variables involved. The aim is clear and not contested.

Applied to politics, this idea of rationality starts to fall apart. After all, in politics our aims are often contested. The situation is not isolated and bounded like on a football field or in an experimental laboratory. Rather it opens out to the whole world. For Britain in June 1940, was the intention to achieve peace or to defeat the Nazis? Many chose the former and followed a perfectly rational course in wanting to come to an accommodation with Hitler. They had a clear goal in mind. But what about others, like Churchill? Were they being ‘irrational’?

The accusation could certainly be made, but would be unfair because Churchill was not aiming for peace at any cost. He had other things in mind, like defeating tyranny, maintaining Britain’s standing and independence in the world, and also personal glory. No doubt, some rationalists at the time claimed that these goals were themselves irrational, but was peace at any cost rational? Here we find the sphere of action, of causation and of different considerations widen out so far that rationality loses its moorings. Once we start trying to examine goals according to rationality, we enter an infinite regression, like the child endlessly asking ‘But why, Daddy’ until Daddy gives up and says, ‘Just because I say so’ or ‘Because it’s the right thing to do.’

Rationalists in politics tend to avoid asking these questions, of why they are trying to achieve what they are. It has already been decided (which is different to that they have decided) and they have work to do. They accuse others of being ‘irrational’ when these others have different intentions to theirs, as if other forms of activity and justifications are illegitimate. They are a bit like a football coach who breaks the bounds of the football field to demand rugby players stop playing rugby because playing rugby is a poor way of putting the ball in the back of the net.

Like this, rationality in politics relentlessly narrows down the possibilities of politics by only admitting certain forms of ‘in-order-to’ justifications. It implies a strict limitation of the ends that can legitimately be sought. Any alternatives appear as ‘irrational’ because they are not directed to the correct ends and are therefore unlikely to be effective at achieving them. But the rationalist is generally not self-aware enough to see this, so continues in all seriousness.

The dishonesty – and political power – in this approach relates to how the accusation is expressed, for accusers do not generally draw boundaries and narrow down to a particular situation of trying to achieve a set goal. The accusation that someone is being ‘irrational’ invariably stands alone, as absolute and universal, covering the whole of politics and of life. It claims the authority of knowledge, of causation, not bounded by the equivalent of the football field, but taking everything into account.

It is bogus, but it feeds into a sort of religious yearning we all have for certainty, for security – and for faith.

In this way, rationalism in politics is inherently irrational, which is a philosophical weakness, but a political strength, for it allows assertions to be made readily. It puts up a constant challenge to opponents to respond, which they may not be in a position to do. Claims of rationality often require intellectual challenge. This takes time, attention to detail, the right language to engage politically and access to public life.

At present, our political life is pretty dreadful at doing this challenging and facilitating it. For the most part, in the immediate situations of politics, assertions of rationality and accusations of irrationality pass by unchallenged, their authority unquestioned. I think we need to do better, and we could do worse than start with these three basic questions:

  • Whose rationality?
  • What are they trying to achieve?
  • What are they implicitly ruling out in the process?

Brexit is of course posed as the ultimate irrational act by many people at the moment. But who are they? What are their motives? What self-interest do they have in stopping it? On the level of their arguments, what do they think politics should be trying to achieve, and why does national self-government rule this out? What is it about national democracy that they would like to exclude from political life, and why?

Once these things start to emerge, then we can start having a more honest political debate.

There is a lot more to be said on this, but that is more than enough for now. Some of these thoughts were jogged into being by listening to the philosopher John Gray’s Desert Island Disks the other day. It’s well worth forty-five minutes of your time, both for the reflections and the music.

13 January 2018

On Brexit and the arts, Part II

I am continuing to see a lot of wailing and moaning about Brexit from the classical music and wider arts Establishments and thought it was worth a further word or two following my previous blogpost on Brexit and the arts, which seemed to go down well with a few people.

Barely a month seems to go by without another letter signed by the great and the good of the arts world railing against everything to do with Brexit and demanding that the government either cancel or dilute it so that the status quo is maintained. Moreover, we find major arts figures seemingly using every opportunity presented by their privileged public access to attack Brexit, implicitly or explicitly, as nasty, bigoted and nationalist.

I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I reject the idea that artists shouldn’t get involved in politics. The arts are part of the public world and therefore part of politics. To artificially separate them off from politics is itself a political act, an act of control which is against the spirit of art. However, on the other hand I think their stance doesn’t reflect well on artists and those who oversee them. It shows the opposite of a lively, spirited, independent arts scene. It shows one that is locked in to established networks of money and power and whose priorities have merged into the priorities of these networks.

This is understandable. After all, we all need to earn money to live, and hopefully to live well. But I don’t think the almost unanimous conformity we have seen from artists and impresarios necessarily makes for good art, let alone interesting political art. The views we hear from actors and conductors and painters are all more or less the same, as if on an echo loop. They don’t really have much of interest or originality to say, which isn’t necessarily a good thing if your business is being interesting and original. 

There is a more practical anti-Brexit case from the arts which deserves more attention though. For the art moguls and managers, as for many in business and technocratic occupations, this practical opposition to Brexit basically comes down to a defence of free movement. Free movement offers great flexibility to bring people in to work from anywhere, to travel freely and perform (or exhibit) anywhere in the EU without much if any trouble. The critic Norman Lebrecht has given the example of how the soprano Sabina Puértolas stepped in for a major part in the Royal Opera House's Rigoletto at the last minute, asking “could this possibly happen after Brexit?”

Opera singer Sabina Puértolas
This is a powerful case, no doubt, and it’s understandable that artists as well as arts organisations are worried about the future under a Brexit regime, especially a ‘hard Brexit’ where reciprocal arrangements are not made all in one go in a ‘deal’ with the EU.

But we rarely hear the other side of this argument expressed in public life, except from those who wish to attack it as (at best) ‘insular’, ‘inward-looking’ and ‘parochial’, in contrast to their ‘open and outward-looking’ stance.

Being open and looking outward is all very well, but you have to be somewhere to do that. If you are against looking inward at that place where you are, then you are basically justifying averting your eyes from the place where you are. You are justifying not caring for your surroundings and the people who surround you. To look inward at the nation would be to pay attention to it and perhaps look to address some of the issues that appear from paying attention.

For the classical music sector, looking inward might reveal its almost total withdrawal from the state education sector, falling concert attendances and its declining place in our public life. It might show up how it has been placed between a rock and a hard place – facing social and political demands to become more ‘inclusive’ at the same time when it is being shunted off into being more exclusive. Without training up a new generation of musicians (and therefore music fans) in schools and other places of learning, the future looks bleak in our country for the greatest music tradition the world has ever seen. Keeping on filling up the pot with people from outside can provide a short-term fix, but obscures the real issues that are bubbling under the surface and which those in charge of things prefer not to address while carrying on like before.

These issues are pretty much the same as those of other sectors in our society. We hear how the NHS relies on free movement, at the same time as the government has cut training for British nurses. British business sneers at British workers as lazy and unreliable, while continuing its fine tradition of not investing in training and new equipment, focusing instead on activities which require few skills and provide low wages with insecure employment. The juggernaut of English Premier League football has relied on a constant stream of foreign players, foreign managers and other staff while the grassroots of English football remains in a poor state, with poor facilities, few coaches and a Neanderthal playing style of kick-and-rush with minimal refereeing control.

I see Brexit as an instruction to our government to start paying attention, to start governing more, to start exerting more control over what happens in our country and start addressing its problems, which is what democratic governments should do. I especially see it as an instruction to reassert the relationship between citizens and government which free movement and the illegality of citizen preference within the EU so undermines. At the present time, in my view, our governments should be re-focusing their efforts on representing their citizens, the people that they are apparently answerable to in elections. They aren’t providing much of that representation if their actions (and inactions) promote a situation in which these citizens find themselves being repeatedly out-competed by those who do not share this relationship of supposed reciprocity.

A government which is happy to see you out-competed in your home country, not least in your ability to have a home in your home country, is not representing your interests. Our technocratic experts appeal to abstract economic rationales to claim the opposite, that generating wealth is a good in itself and provides compensation in the form of welfare and public services.  But this compensation is brought on by the reality of loss and defeat. Solidarity with our fellow citizens means according them respect, not compensation for our lack of respect.

Certainly, Brexit will not address this huge issue on its own, but it will give the opportunity to address it, and help to focus the minds of those who govern on . . . governing, rather than virtue signalling about how open and outward-looking they are.

10 January 2018

Virgin Trains banning the Daily Mail is another brick in the wall of the system of diversity

On one level Virgin Trains’ decision to stop selling the Daily Mail is quite a trivial matter. The company is a private business and can decide not to sell whatever it likes.

But there is also a serious aspect to this, for it shows how some of our major public-facing organisations (including businesses like Virgin and the retailer Paperchase) are explicitly taking the ‘progressive’, liberal-left side in our Culture Wars, and using what control they have over public space to stop the views of opponents from appearing.

According to the story in PR Week, Virgin Trains announced its decision in a memo to staff last year, saying,

“There’s been considerable concern raised by colleagues about the Mail’s editorial position on issues such as immigration, LGBT rights, and unemployment. We’ve decided that this paper is not compatible with the VT brand and our beliefs. We won’t be stocking the Daily Mail for sale or as a giveaway.”

As we can see, the statement is explicitly political, focusing on “the Mail’s editorial position” on “issues” rather than the paper’s sometimes unpleasant headlines howling about ‘MIGRANTS’ and the like. It says that the Mail’s stance on immigration, LGBT rights and unemployment are contrary to its brand and beliefs.

According to PR Week, the campaign group Stop Funding Hate seems to have had no part in this, but its influence is clear for all to see, providing a blacklisting template that anyone can pick up and follow, and for which any public-facing business is a potential target. It is the sort of thing that left-wing activists in Britain used to find themselves on the end of; but they are now in the vanguard in promoting it.

What is perhaps remarkable is how much of the private sector is only too happy to play along. But this is just another in a burgeoning list of examples of how the radical left and business interests have formed an alliance, bridged by the centre left/’centrists’ (including Blairites).

For me, this alliance is one of the political stories of our time. They are gathering principally around mass immigration, which both the left and the private sector want to continue, the left as part of its desire to maximise diversity and business in order to maximise competition and ensure a wide pool of labour (with the centrists believing in both for the most part).

On top of that, as the Virgin statement made clear, the company and its founder Richard Branson are very much in the branding business, for which virtue signalling over political issues is an increasingly popular tool. Last year for example, the retailer Jigsaw wrapped Oxford Circus Underground station in a pro-immigration ad campaign – another example of controlling public space so that the political views of this left-business alliance appear in public in a positive light while those of its opponents either do not appear or do so in a negative light.

Jigsaw's pro-immigration ad campaign, Oxford Circus station, October 2017
(photo from Tara Mulholland)

There is something systemic going on here, in the sense that the call going out from the activists is repeatedly finding a ready and enthusiastic response, not just from pro-immigration businesses but from all sorts of public institutions which are leveraging their access to public space (and their financial resources, including employment ability) to control what can appear in it.

The call and response goes both ways, dragging the two sides into a strange, and strangely comfortable, embrace. This is one thing that I explore in my book, The Tribe: the liberal-left and the systemof diversity, which is coming out later this year.